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He Shakes Rattles, Rolls in Dough : Nation's Most Prolific Snake Catcher Catches 1,000 a Year

February 04, 1988|TOM McNALLY | The Associated Press

CLEVELAND, Mont. — Jim Halseth, 24, who lives in this north-central Montana crossroads town--one gas pump, two mobile homes and a schoolhouse--just may be America's most prolific rattlesnake catcher.

He captures an average of 1,000 live rattlers a year.

Halseth gets his snakes in early spring as they leave their dens and again in the fall as they return.

On average, rattlesnakes are worth $2 a pound to Halseth. Some he kills, cures the hides and sells to firms that make belts, hat bands and so on.

Some he sells live to pharmaceutical supply houses, which process the snake's venom into anti-venin.

Some for Snacking

And some he sells live to firms that cook, can and sell rattlesnake meat.

In a normal year, Halseth will clear $10,000 doing his rattlesnake thing, and that's not bad around Cleveland, Mont.

Currently, Halseth has an order from a pharmaceutical supply firm for 1,000 live rattlers.

"No trouble," he told a reporter earlier this fall. "This time of year on a nice day, they come out of cracks in the rocks and sometimes you'll see 50 or 100 of them lying in the sun."

Halseth prowls the wild, unsettled rolling Montana hills in a pickup truck, visiting known rattlesnake dens and searching for new ones.

Snakes he catches are unceremoniously dropped into 4-foot-high plastic garbage cans. Lids are secured, then he drives home to Cleveland where the snakes are transferred into a large steel bin.

The snakes Halseth catches are Western prairie rattlesnakes. Most are from 2 to 5 feet long and 2 to 4 pounds. They are, of course, dangerous.

Twice Bitten

In the two years he has been chasing rattlers, Halseth has been bitten twice. The first time, he was holding a rattler by the back of the head, trying to snap its head off.

"Somehow he bit me in the thumb," Halseth said. "There was some swelling and a little pain, and we could see the poison spread by the redness in my hand. But there were no real bad effects."

The second time, a rattler got him in the thigh just above the right knee. He had some snakes in a garbage can in the yard, and the lid was slightly ajar. It was night and Halseth couldn't see that a snake somehow had crawled partway out of the plastic can.

"It was a 4-foot snake," said Halseth, "and when I felt him hit me I didn't know what happened. I went to a light by the house, dropped my jeans, and then I saw a fang mark and a thin trickle of blood."

Halseth's father heated a beer bottle with hot water and placed it open-end down over the bite.

"That formed a suction which drew much of the venom out," Halseth explained, "and doctors said that saved my life. We did that three times with the beer bottle, and each time it sucked out pinkish venom."

After seven hours, the muscles in Halseth's high went into spasms.

"The pain became intense, so we called an ambulance. I lay in bed, but the pain and swelling now were so great I couldn't get up when the ambulance finally arrived. They took me out on a stretcher."

He was driven 45 miles to a hospital in Havre, where doctors began injecting him with anti-venin.

"With each anti-venin shot, I'd break out in hives and my heartbeat went up to 190," Halseth said. "I was in intensive care for three days and walked with crutches for a month. My whole leg turned black. All that, but there was no permanent tissue damage because so much venom had been removed using the beer bottle suction method."

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